Rangers need Holland in top form

SEATTLE -- Texas Rangers veteran Michael Young knows his baseball history. And historically speaking, making three consecutive World Series appearances isn't easy, no matter how good a team is.

That feat has happened only once in the past 34 years. The Yankees went to four consecutive World Series from 1998 through 2001.

"I know how difficult it is to get to that final level,'' Young said Friday. "One play here and one pitch there and any series can shift very easily. We don't take it for granted, and that's why we won't even think about it in July."

Well, think about this. That quest looks a little brighter with Derek Holland having his best outing of the season Friday night in a 3-2 victory over the Seattle Mariners.

In his second start since returning from the DL, Holland allowed only four singles in 7 2/3 scoreless innings.

"Overall he did an extremely good job," said Rangers manager Ron Washington. "He had a good changeup working tonight, which is something he hasn't had in a while. We believe in him. We hope he continues to progress."

It was impressive, but it was against the anemic Mariners. They made a run at closer Joe Nathan in the ninth thanks to a Young error and a wild pitch, but Seattle's batting order is pathetic, and that's being kind.

The Rangers will need Holland, along with a few other pitchers who will come off the DL soon, if they hope to make that rare third consecutive trip to the World Series.

"If we make it, you can come ask me that question then," Washington said. "We've gotta play first. This is no cake. The first half proved it. We got wore down. The second half is not going to be any different."

Judging strictly by the standings, the Rangers start the second half of the season right where they hoped to be.

And if someone told Washington before the season started that his team would be five games ahead of Anaheim right after the All-Star break, he said he happily would have accepted it.

"But it's where we expected to be, injuries or not," Washington said. "So I'm not surprised."

The Rangers have the second-best record in baseball at 53-34. But the Angels finally are playing like the team almost everyone expected them to be, despite blowing a 5-2 eighth-inning lead at New York on Friday night and losing 6-5 to the Yankees.

After a horrible start for Anaheim and newly acquired slugger Albert Pujols, the Angels are 42-25 since the end of April. And Pujols is starting to play like, well, the real Pujols.

"That's why the start of the season doesn't mean anything," Young said. "We knew where [the Angels] would end up. That's a very talented team. We expect them to play well, just like we expect to play well."

To stay in front of Anaheim, the Rangers will need a banged-up pitching staff to get healthy again. Holland is a big part of that equation.

Holland was 9-1 after the break last year. If he comes anywhere close to that this year, the Rangers will be tough to catch.

"I'm just happy to be back out there and help the team win," Holland said. "I felt strong. I used all my pitches tonight."

Texas hopes to have Colby Lewis back in the rotation next week. Neftali Feliz is on a rehab assignment at Triple-A Round Rock, but he might return before the end of the month if all goes well.

Relievers Alexi Ogando, Koji Uehara and Mark Lowe also are on the DL and expected to return soon.

Lewis is expected to start Wednesday at Oakland. Washington said Uehara and Ogando could be back for the Oakland series next week, but no later than Anaheim next weekend. And Washington said Feliz is progressing faster than expected.

"Those are our winning pieces that are about to come back," Washington said. "That allows me to smile a little bit. Once we get those guys back, we'll be whole."

And Washington can't say enough about how well his team has played while it hasn't been whole.

"I think we've done a good job as a group holding this thing together while those guys were down," Washington said. "I'm proud of those guys in the clubhouse. That's what makes those guys who they are. That's what makes the character of this team."

True enough, but Texas has a lot of maybes to sort out on pitchers returning from injuries. And a major decision is coming soon for general manager Jon Daniels.

The rest of this month requires a big evaluation for Daniels and the Rangers staff about where things stand with the pitching staff.

It boils down to this: Is Daniels convinced the key members of the staff are healthy enough to produce at a high level and keep the Rangers on top of the AL West and strong enough to make another playoff run?

Or does Daniels feel one or two of his starters, along with key relievers, aren't ready to pitch at a level needed to get the job down the stretch?

If he believes the latter, a trade could happen before July 31 to bring Cole Hamels or Zack Greinke to the Rangers.

A deal for either of those pitchers likely would require the Rangers give up one of their top minor league prospects, probably Double-A Frisco third baseman Mike Olt.

Team president Nolan Ryan said earlier this week he doesn't expect a blockbuster-type trade. But Daniels might get antsy if some of the pitchers come off the DL and look shaky.

Young doesn't see that happening.

"We just grinded through it in the first half," Young said. "We feel like we haven't played anywhere near our best baseball yet. We feel it's still in front of us. We are starting to get healthy again bit by bit. We just want to get everyone back on the field and cut ourselves loose."

Holland took a big step toward cutting loose Friday. If it continues, maybe the Rangers can beat the odds and make it 3-for-3 in World Series appearances. And it they do, maybe this time they can win it.